Doctor Joseph Daneka had a small office above a Chinese noodle joint on the north side of the city. Mike walked up the narrow staircase, reminding himself to never eat at the Chinese place again.They left their food in large plastic bins to marinate and used them prop open the door to the hallway, causing the entire stairwell to have a sickening smell of meat mixed with sweet and sour sauce. Every time Doc brings it I end up eating it. Not this time Doc. Not this time.
Walking into the offices of the eccentric doctor came the welcome smell of polished leather and old books. Mike took a deep breath and sat down in the waiting room. For a self-proclaimed minimalist, Joseph Daneka fails spectacularly at it. Mike looked around the room as he sank into a cool leather chair that swallowed him. An oversized prize sword fish hung on the wall across from the door. Doc recounted the story every time he had a new patient. Doc battled the beast in the seas off the coast of Brazil for six hours on a rickety fishing boat. Mike knew the truth. He bought it from a disgruntled taxidermist in a back alleyway, like a junkie buying drugs with a briefcase full of cash.
Books were piled up on every table in the room ensuring people like Mike wouldn’t put their feet on them. Most of them were books related in some fashion to Senator McCarthy and famous media figures at that time. Still, if he peered carefully, Mike could find some obscure '70s science fiction and the obligatory copy of Highlights that’s over 5 years old. Mike had never seen a medical office without one. Lastly about fourteen Chess and Go sets stolen from coffee shops in the area stacked in corners. He had known Daneka for years, they were roommates once in another lifetime. While Mike joined the Ironworkers Union, Doc spent the next decade racking up enough student loan debt to buy a small desolate country. Considering that Mike was his only repeat client, he was not truly clear on how exactly he remained in business.
He laid his head back and began to finally relax when the door flung open, ushering in the awful odor from the stairwell. A malnourished balding man with a tweed coat came stumbling in, carrying bags of Chinese food and another stolen chess set. Despite his relatively young age, Doc could have easily passed for a forty-nine year old. He looked at Mike and gave a short curt nod and dropped the bags of food on the stack of books.
“Food.” He said. Then stepped over the table with his lanky legs and slipped into his office with haste and closed the door behind him.
“Great session Doc. Real insightful. I think I’m cured now. You’ve done it by destroying what is left of my intestines.” Mike said. A growl in his stomach forced him to instinctively grab the bag. Realizing he still had his fingerless gloves on and his fingers were still blackened from work, he paused for a second before shrugging and tearing the bag open. Tsk, dammit Mike, stop going with impulse. Ah screw it… rotten stairwell mystery meat hasn’t killed me yet. Doc’s closed door was an attempt to avoid hearing the sounds of slurping noodles. Mike’s prefered method of revenge for the most vile food on the planet. He smiled mischievously as he opened the doctor’s office and plopped himself down on the therapist couch while tossing Doc the beef fried rice container.
“So, the visions haven’t let up at all. The walking, talking dead. I feel like I’m living in a horror movie. If it was real, it would be much cooler, I think zombies would make great cashiers and retail employees.” Mike said as he started munching on slimy noodles.
“Well Mike, you have survivor's guilt. It’s natural you would start projecting this. Not many people in this world have had as many people around them die like you. I’m still around. You’re a good person Mike. There is no rhyme or reason to your destiny. No divine plan. It’s just a matter of life. People live, life happens, then they die. It’s what you do during that life that matters.” He paused to stare at Mike's’ noodle eating habits and began to eat his food with precise care. “Are you still trying to overdose on adrenaline?”
“Yeah, I’m not sure you can understand it. But when I push myself, right when I’m hanging there on the edge I can see them. The world changes for me. Becomes sort of this… shadow world? It’s even better if I do it near a haunted place. Speaking of that, I’m going to the theater where Dillinger died this weekend. Wanna go?” Mike said. He realized he was talking with his hands again. This presented a problem with the food delivery system of chopsticks and he paid more attention devouring his foul meal.
“Nah. If the dead were real Mike, the entire world would know. There are nearly seven and a half billion humans, the majority sleepwalking through existence. Proof of the dead being real would spark a massive awakening. As your therapist, I can give you a clinical diagnosis. As your friend I’m just going to tell you that you are insane. You already know this of course. However-”
“You know this is why you don’t have any clients right?” Mike cut in.
“Why would I need other clients when I have you? I could write a book about you.” He got up and moved to a white board and starting writing names down. “As I was saying, every time you do this, every time you find a place where someone died, you start getting these visions. Let me take an educated guess about today. You have been for a while now working on accident prone job sites. It’s why your company gets the high risk work. This job site is no different correct?”
“Yup. Three man accident. One survived, two didn’t. Every one of them family men. I worked with one of them on a few different jobs. He had a temper and rode everyone pretty hard but, was a saint at heart if you could avoid talking politics with him.” Mike paused and stared at the names appearing on the board. “Why?”
“I want to focus on something different here. Follow me if you will. You’ve mentioned to me the names of people you talk to after you have these. There is a pattern. All of them are people who no one seemed to really notice. Janitors, cab drivers, the lady at the security desk. But all of them have the same last name. O’Neil.” Daneka kept writing names on the board from memory. It showed in his handwriting. Twenty one of them Mike guessed. Doc ran his fingers through his hair and started picking at loose neck skin while staring at the board. “I think you see them in these roles because you respect them. You value the common man, the working class. To you, the world ignores them. In a way, society sees their lives as tools to be used. Dead things. But this isn’t just coincidence, and has not been for a while. They ask you to do things yes?”
“Well, they’re always asking me to meet him. They’re always vague; just that he runs this city and he is being polite by waiting. This time one of ‘em reminded me I have seven days left. I mean, I don’t talk to all of them, sometimes I just see them in the distance. Always disfigured or dead in some way. The worst is when they’re kids or the pizza delivery guy. Creepy as shit really, even though I’m starting to become numb.” A tingling sensation started creeping through his hands as he remembered flashes of his encounters. You’re so full of shit man.
Mike slid over a small end table in front of him and put his dusty boots on it while Doc’s back was turned. “Here’s the thing though, it’s never during the daytime. Always at night, like I said, horror movie. They also keep giving me a deadline and I’m running out of time. It started after-.” Mike could not stop his hand from shaking. “It started after the drunk cabbie ran the red light-” He wasn’t sure if fear or nervousness made it difficult talking about it so honestly with someone who was not dead.
Doc lowered his voice. “Are you still positive that you want to hold on? You are not taking any truly suicidal actions are you? I do have some obligations to uphold about your mental health.”
“I’m still afraid to die. Not there yet Doc. No reason for Linden Oaks-- yet.” Mike elected to leave out that this day had a closer call than usual due to some unfortunate wind.
Doc continued staring at the board while writing down numbers. Then he put dates on the calendar in illegible doctor scribble. “December twenty-first two thousand twelve. They say the world is going to end on that day, Mayan calendar stuff. Maybe you want it to happen. It could be that you are getting wrapped up in all the hubbub about it.” He circled November thirtieth. “This day however, seven days from now is completely insignificant. Did you know anybody who died on that day?”
Mike closed his eyes trying to jog his memory, counting with his fingers, Doc watched him reset the count more than a few times. “Nope.” Mike said. “Nobody, which is a relief. Maybe I should make that day a holiday.”
“I think you should. Make a special day for you and take some personal time. Call it 'Mike’s Fiesta of the not-dead'. I also think you should do something else though. Something unusual for me to suggest.” Daneka sat down and leaned forward, putting his elbow patches on his bony knees with an excited look on his face. “I’ve been doing research into the name O’neil. You my friend, might have stumbled onto a conspiracy.”
“Uh, Doc, I’m talking to dead people. The last time we had this session you went on about how I do, what I do, in trying to prove I’m still alive. Which, hey, actually makes some kind of sense. It took over a year to get to that point. Now you are shifting gears to a conspiracy?”
“Yes. Perhaps it’s all in your head. Senator McCarthy saw communists everywhere. My father was his therapist in confidence during the worst of it. I’m continuing the family practice, and after reading his notes he concluded that radically allowing McCarthy to play out his fantasy was the best method of therapy for him.” Doc’s feet began to twitch with anticipation. “The private session notes are missing. There are hints that there was truth to that fantasy. Wish they weren’t confiscated...”
“This isn’t one of your fish stories is it? Besides, McCarthy ended up trashing the entire country. Hell man, he even added Under God, to the pledge of allegiance.”
“Actually that had more to do with Eisenhower and potentially a conspiracy with the Catholic Fraternities for a few decades.” Doc waved his hand in the air frantically to prevent himself going off on a tangent. “Unlike McCarthy, you see the working class instead of communists. You imagine that one man runs this city and the working class dead-end up in his employ. You’ve become terrified that you won’t make a dent in the world.” Doc reached behind him and pulled out a folder. “The O’Neils. It’s a common enough name, particularly here in Chicago on the south side.” He started holding up pictures of strangers to Mike. “The thing is, the more I started to dig into people you’ve specifically named. I keep finding people who went missing. Who died of unknown causes then in a few cases, outright murders. I know you’re not the type of person to put in late nights going through newspaper reels.”
Daneka produced an old nineteen twenties picture of a curly-haired policeman with round cheeks and spots of freckles. “Patrick O’Neil. Every single person you have named is somewhere on this man’s family tree despite their ethnicity. The dead you see are all maimed or disfigured. I think he is faking deaths or burying secrets. I think you should go see him. I think this is your him.” Doc smiled ear to ear. His glasses near falling off his nose.
“Patrick O’Neil? Really? The imaginary leader of the dead that runs Chicago from the shadows according to them. You want me to see him?” Mike smirked in doubt and began looking away from the photos.
“Somewhere in your subconscious is a buried connection. Maybe hypnosis is something we could look into. The mind works in curious ways and humanity still only has barely begun to understand how it works. I not only think he’s real, but he’s connected, and you’re seeing ghosts and projections because your subconscious can’t rationalize what you’ve seen. Maybe he’s behind all the accidents?”
They looked at each other in silence. The only sounds heard were sirens outside rushing to the scene of an accident. Mike let the information on the whiteboard flow into him. Despite his best efforts every day to forget the names, he always found them wandering into his thoughts like tiny maggots. It was his own truth that he would try to forget right after each encounter happened. Like an addict though, he kept coming back and placing himself in death-defying situations and right afterwards the encounters would happen. His fists began to unclench from the stress of uncertainty as he slowly nodded in acceptance. The Chinese food’s pungent odor reminded him of his surroundings and that he was no longer ravenously hungry. Hunger is the best spice.
“Okay. Why not? There aren’t many things left that can hurt right?” Mike said at last.
“Excellent!” Doc raised his hands above his head in triumph. He reached over and patted Mike on the legs. “By the way, If you put these ratty boots on my table again, I’ll stab you with my swordfish. Then you’ll have your final answers about the afterlife.” The doctor extended his hand helping his friend off the couch and patted him on the back causing a plume of concrete dust to fly off as they walked into the waiting room. “I’ll keep researching and try to find you a location before then. Meet back here on the 30th, you said at night right? Lets do dinner first. Chinese?”
“Nice incentive. Real nice. You know that place will kill you faster than my smokes right? See ya then.”
Mike took the stairs two at a time and stepped out into the bitter cold already fumbling in his pockets for a lighter. Across the street he spied a brief glance at a man in a long coat with a cabby hat dodging around the corner. Nah, can’t be the same guy, everyone wears that style of clothes now. Fucking hipsters. Mike looked back at the building, the neon glow of a noodles sign providing the only light on its facade. Doc did good research though, and if it’s real and he’s causing ‘accidents’….Well, I don’t have anything else going on tonight. Mike began a slow jog across the street and after the man.